Welcome to Composer Corner

Hello everyone.

It has been said that one can not learn to be a composer. You either have it or you don't. Well, I don't think that is entirely true. Yes, some of us have a nack for it and others don't. My favorite composer is John Williams. You know some of his pieces even if you don't recognize his name. He wrote the music to many films: Stars Wars, the Indiana Jones Trilogy (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Superman, etc .... I mention him to say that I have the realistic expectation that I will never compose like him. I don't know how much natural talent he has, but I do know that he went to school. He learned to do what he does. And, if I had all the money in the world, I would go out and get a Music Degree. Since I don't (have all the money in the world), I'll have to deal with what I've got.

The main problem that I have encountered with composing music is writer's block. Sometimes I can bust out a tune without trying very hard. Other times I can't write to save my life. But, I'll have the desire to do so, so I sit at my computer, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for inspiration. However, inspiration doesn't come to every composer. Sometimes you have to search for it, perhaps working through a pre-determined process. This blog is my little corner to rant and rave about overcoming musical writer's block.

I want to share my insights as an amateur composer (very amateur) and maybe a helpful hint here and there from other sources. I've noticed that there isn't a lot of information for amateur composers online. Yes, there are tons of websites, but the information can either be overwhelming ... or just plain-not-very-helpful. In the end, I may not be very helpful myself, but if nothing else, I'll add my personal touch to the confusing subject of musical composition.

My goal is NOT to teach you music theory or even how to read music. I will assume that you know how to read music. Knowledge of music theory is not needed in order to compose, although it is helpful. Your compositional skills will increase as you learn more, obviously. There are some good music theory tutorials online. You can do a Google search. I recommend this one. Very easy to understand.

Earlier I mentioned a pre-determined process. Since I rarely can pop stuff out without thinking about it, I follow a set of rules in order to compose a piece of music. In my next post, I will begin discussing my process, what the rules are and when and how I break them. After all, you can do nothing wrong in music, but if you want to achieve a certain sound, there are rules and precise exceptions. Till next time!

#1 Principle - Follow a Chord Progression

I would like to start describing my composing technique by talking about the most important element to the process: Chord Progressions. According to this wiki article, chord progressions are central to western music and the study of harmony. Chord progressions form the basic structure of a song, whether the composer thinks about them or not. A lot of people can seemingly throw notes down on a page (or the piano view of their favorite software) without ever thinking about what they are throwing down. It comes natural to them. They don't have to think about what notes sound good together or what type of sound they would like to produce. Perhaps they have studied music extensively and don't have to ponder the structure of their song. I don't know, but I do know that I can't do that. When I try, my songs sound like crap.

However, when I follow a chord progression (even a very simple one), my songs sound a lot better.

According to the most basic definition, a chord progression is simply a series of chords. Theoretically, then, you could use whatever chords you wanted and use this as a template. It would certainly produce an interesting song. Perhaps not the most pleasant one, though.

Instead of teaching you about chord progressions, it would be easier to allow someone else to do that. This site is an exellent way to learn about chord progessions. (It is the same site I told you about before.) Plus, it touches on things that I will talk about in future posts. This lesson is part of a very good music theory website. Their lessons are all flash, so they are easy to follow and learn from.

Once you are familiar with chord progressions, how do you follow it to compose a song? Well, there are many different scenarios. You might already have a melody and are having a hard time coming up with the harmony. Build a chord progression around the melody and then ... follow the chord progression. You might have a wicked bass line but can't think of a good melody to go along with it. Build a chord progression around the bass line and then ... follow the chord progression. You might be at the very early stages of a song. No melody, no harmony, no bass, etc ... Where do you start? Build a chord progression and then ... follow it. Do you see a pattern here?

In future posts, I will discuss how I build a chord progression and how I use it to create my songs. For now, if you aren't familiar with chord theory, learn from one of the two links I have given you. Till next time!

Building a Chord Progression

There are many ways to build a chord progression. I alluded to some in my last post. You can simply throw chords together and see what happens. Kind of like throwing everything into a pot of stew. I've never tried that approach. It would probably produce some weird songs. Another way is to copy other popular progressions. This wiki article (the same one from my last post) list several popular progressions. This tutorial (yes, the same as before) goes through the creation of a diagram of popular classical progressions. These were used by Mozart and Beethoven, etc ... You can simply follow the diagram and create a progression.

Chord Progression Diagram

Here is a similar diagram. It might be slightly easier to follow since the arrows tell you where to go. There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Definitely end your progression with the tonic, and for the beginner, the first chord of the progression should probably be the tonic as well. In the case of C Major (all the white keys on the piano), your first chord would be C Major, and you would end with this chord as well.

A good choice for the chord right before the last chord is the fifth chord of the scale. In the case of C Major, you would choose G Major. The movement from V to I (Dominant to Tonic) is called a cadence. It makes the musical phrase end well, pleasing to the ears.

Another way to create a progression is to use a pattern of your own. At this point I would like to introduce you to a song I did recently. I put it together specifically for this blog.

It uses a chord progression that I came up with. It is related in a backwards kind of way to the diagram above, but I didn't use the diagram to create it. Here's how I did it: first, I started with the tonic in C Major. I chose each successive chord so that the next chord would have one note in common with the previous chord. So, after the first tonic chord (C Major), I could have chosen E minor or G Major. The purpose I had in mind was to allow the chords to flow from one to another. Another benefit is to allow the use of whole notes that are composed strictly of chord notes, eliminating unwanted dissonant sounds. More on dissonance in a future post.

This diagram is a table showing the chord progression I used in the song Lurking Exhaust. The vertical lines represent measures, so I changed chords every two beats (half note). The top row is obviously the roman numerals referring to which chord of the scale is being used. Upper case roman numerals refer to Major chords, and lower case numerals refer to minor chords. This makes it easy to move this chord progression to another key.

The next row (the upper case letters) shows the name of the chord. The next two rows show the other notes in the chord. I can easily look at this diagram and decide what notes a certain instrument is going to play. More on creating parts in another post.

You don't have to create a diagram like this if you don't want to, but I find it easier if I can see at a glance what notes I have available to me. And, this is a very simple progression. Once you get into more advanced progressions, a simple diagram may only confuse you. I don't know because I usually stick to simple stuff.

Once you have a diagram like this one, what can you do with it? Let's talk about that next time.

Creating Harmony Parts via Diagram

Sometimes I have melody before I have any harmony, but with the process I have been describing, creating harmony often comes first. (After creating a progression, that is.) Anyway, with a diagram it is easy to create harmony and bass parts. Let's start with the bass.

Here's the diagram again:

The Bass Part

By far the easiest bass part is this: the bass plays the note the chord is named after. The bass stays with the chord changes. So, with the above chord progression, the bass would play C G D A E G C (all half notes).

Having the bass play any note other than the one the chord is named after is a little more advanced. There are certain guidelines for those situations. I'm not aware of all the guidelines, but I have figured out some rules of my own. These very well might correspond with the official guidelines.

1. The bass should play the note the chord is named after on the beat that the chord changes.
2. The bass may play other notes of the chord (or repeat the main note) at any other time. IOW, in between chord changes.
3. The bass may play notes that aren't from the chord as long as the note doesn't cause unwanted dissonance. (More on this one later.)

You can break any of these at any time. But, if the song doesn't sound right after you experiment, go back to these rules and start again. (This is true of a lot of this process. A lot of the rules are very confining. I break these rules often myself. The point is these rules or guidelines provide a starting point. After that, you can do whatever you want.)

Whole Note Harmony

In a previous post, I referred to a whole-note harmony. It's really easy to do with this progression ... especially since this progression was designed to create dissonant free parts. Here's how you do it: just choose the note that both chords in a measure have in common. In the case of our progression: G A B C.

Arpeggio Harmony

Here's a wiki article on arpeggios.

There are many ways to compose arpeggios. As long as you stick to notes of the chords, you can put down whatever you want. Usually there is a pattern, though. You can have arpeggios going up, going down, or going up and down. All of this is really easy with a diagram. You just choose the next note. And, with the piano roll view of many software titles, its easy to see the pattern you are creating. The main goal most of the time with arpeggios is to keep a consistent rhythm.

You don't have to keep the same pattern for measure after measure. In fact, that can get kind of monotonous if over done. In Lurking Exhaust, I changed the pattern every measure. Sometimes you want the next note to be as close to the previous note as possible. Other times great jumps sound pretty good, too. Experiment and see what you come up with.

Filler Harmony

You've worked on bass parts, arpeggio parts, and you have one filler harmony already: the whole-note harmony. Filler Harmony is a term I made up. It means creating parts that aren't concerned with rhythm. You just need some empty space in your sound scheme filled. The whole note harmony does this pretty well. But, you can also create filler harmony from any progression. Just choose notes from the diagram. To truly be filler harmony and not some funky harmony part, the notes would need to be long boring notes. I use half notes a lot. I just change notes every time the chord changes.

Well, that's all for now. These general descriptions should give you an idea of how easy it can be to create harmony parts. There are more specific things I do within each harmony type. Maybe I'll discuss them later. But, for now, what do we do about melody? I'll tackle that one next.

The Process of Creating a Melody

Melody is a tricky thing. I've looked for information on creating a good melody, and in my mind information is limited. I guess there isn't a step-by-step guide on how to create the perfect melody. If there were, there would be lots of rich people creating music ... Wait, a sec ... there are lots of rich people creating music. Oh yeah, I forgot. Their melodies suck, too. What can be done about this situation? Well, my amateur opinion is that you can't be taught to write the perfect melody. However, through experimentation, trial and error, you can come up with some pretty cool melodies. Realize, though, that for every great melody you come up with, you are going to have several that just plain stink. Even the genius of Mozart couldn't create memorable melodies every time.

There is good information out there on what a good melody consists of. There are some basic principles to follow ... depending on what type of music you are composing. For some genres, plopping down whatever notes you want will basically create a good enough melody. Here are some pages with good information on melody.

Basic Melody Principles - This first one is from the first music theory website I told you about in my first post. Their information on melody is exellent and is the closest step-by-step guide you could possibly find. The section entitled "Composing a Melody to a Given Harmonic Progression" is basically how I create melodies in this process I've been describing.

Melodic Composition - This one has some info on the curve of a melody.

Melodic Composition - Part 2 - This one is the continuation to the previous one.

How I Create a Melody

My melodies are created in stages. I first just choose half notes or quarter notes based upon the chord progression. This early form of the melody may or may not make it to the final song. It just depends on how well it sounds. Picking the right instrument can make all the difference in this case. The next step is to add notes in between the notes I've already placed.

Maybe a graphical representation will help. Here is the piano roll view for Lurking Exhaust. The first picture is just the half notes. With the second picture, I added notes in between. The half-note version becomes the basis for later versions.

You'll notice that with the half-note version, I tried to put a nice curve to the melody. Once I hit the highest note, I didn't come back to it again. Same way with the lowest note. I only hit it the one time. Those are reasons why I like this melody, and I think it works.

I'm sure there will be more posts on melody creation. This gives you a good start, right? Till next time.